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Celtic manager Neil Lennon rises above sectarianism

Last week, someone attempted to send a bullet through the post to Celtic manager Neil Lennon. The former Northern Ireland international will have been far from surprised by that development, says John Kerr

Gerry Lennon saw the bonfire as he passed through a small enclave near Banbridge. The effigy on top of the pallets had attracted his attention — his son Neil, in full Celtic kit, ready for burning.

Throughout Gerry’s life, he avoided being caught up in sectarian tensions. A Catholic farm boy, he worked in Lurgan's linen factories and raised four children to keep out of trouble.

But trouble of one form or another has followed his famous son, before and after he signed for Celtic in December 2000.

His international football career for Northern Ireland ended in 2002 when an anonymous caller warned he would be killed if he played in a friendly against Cyprus.

A year earlier, in a friendly against Norway, he was booed and jeered by his own fans..

A similar chorus of abuse rained on the midfielder at every away game he played for Celtic — though on these occasions it came from opposing fans.

Mock hangings were staged on the Internet. He was chased, head-butted, spat upon, had bottles thrown at him, his car kicked, his girlfriends called obscene names.

An attempt was made to run him off the motorway while he drove his young daughter and her friend to Glasgow Airport. He was confronted as he pushed his baby son in a pram.

The abuse began the moment he arrived at Celtic Park from Leicester City. It continued until he said goodbye in the summer of 2007, after seven years in the midfield, the last two as captain.

By then, a hardness had set into his features and defiance, not mischief, was written across his face.

The bright blue eyes were still lively, but hooded. By then he had spoken publicly of the insidious depression that crushes his spirit for months at a time.

As a child, he played for Lurgan Celtic Boys' Club and supported the Glasgow team.

When, as a schoolboy, he was told a Celtic scout had expressed an interest in him (it came to nothing), he spent the day turning cartwheels, daring to dream. It took almost another two decades for that dream to become reality.

Threads of culture, history and religion tie Neil Francis Lennon to the club. But does his background make him 'Celtic to the core'?

When Lennon says he believes Celtic allowed Rangers to intimidate them for too long, he is talking purely about football. And he showed this as a player, as a captain and, now, as manager.

“We turned the tables on Rangers and I think that gave Celtic fans a lot of satisfaction,” he said.

“When Martin O’Neill came, he brought pride back to the club that hadn't been there for a long time.”

After the glory years under compatriot O’Neill, Lennon took himself off to Nottingham Forest for a season.

Then, following a brief stint at Wycombe Wanderers, he returned to Celtic as part of the coaching staff.

Then came the chance to mould a team in his image as manager and for sure it's been a learning curve.

“I became a sort of symbol because of my background,” he said.

“I'm a Nationalist and a Catholic, but I've never rubbed it in people's faces. Then suddenly I'm tarred with this tag, a kind of IRA-pumpin' footballer, but I wouldn't have played for Northern Ireland if that was the case.”

The teenage Lennon's choices, in life and football, were ecumenical. If he is a symbol of anything, it ought to be reconciliation through sport. After turning out for local juniors Lurgan Celtic, he and his friend Gerry Taggart played for Hillsborough Boys in the Lisburn League.

“The team was predominantly Protestant,” Lennon remembers.

“We were a wee bit nervy, but they welcomed us — we crossed the divide very early.”

He has lived all his adult life outside Northern Ireland. Until he came to Celtic, he had almost forgotten that sectarianism existed.

At 12, he received a letter from Jock Wallace, then manager of Rangers, inviting him to Ibrox and confirming the club's interest in him. He visited the stadium and was impressed by its marble halls.

Though a trial never transpired, he would have considered seriously any offer from Wallace. Lennon a Rangers player; who would have thought it was once a possibility?

Playing football was all that ever mattered to him. He is driven by a fierce and self-punishing desire to win.

He often turned out for two different boys clubs on a Saturday morning and afternoon and then played Gaelic on Sunday.

“It was a passion. I just loved it and I happened to be good at it. I practiced and practiced until I got a contract,” he said.

Lennon was just 16 went he left home for his first club, Motherwell. He earned £28.50 a week and stayed in digs run by a succession of old ladies, rising early to clean boots.

His Irishness singled him out for ridicule and bullying. The regime was unsuited to a teenager's developing skeleton and he would pay a terrible price in the future.

Next came Manchester City, where he cleaned toilets as well as boots — but also received more appropriate coaching. He was soon playing for the reserves, debuted with the first team at 16 and won a year's professional contract.

Just as suddenly, though, it was all over. Lennon was one of only two boys dropped at the end of the 12 months.

His father told him he would rise again. Gerry Lennon instinctively understood what his son had suffered. Lennon senior was forced to retire at 38, because of a disabling disease.

“My father is a proud guy, as was his father,” says Lennon. “It's a family trait. In sport, if you lose your pride, you might as well give up. When I went through periods of doubt, my dad would build me up.”

Crewe Alexandra, an English Third Division team, rescued him. “All I could think was: ‘This is such a comedown'.”

Though he excelled at Crewe, he was about to face an even greater test of his character: doctors discovered that he had been playing with a broken back.

A bone in his spine had fractured and without radical treatment his career would be finished. The injury is not uncommon in apprentice footballers who work too hard, too young. Lennon was 19.

An orthopedic surgeon in Northern Ireland who had treated wounded soldiers during the Troubles operated on him. Ian Adair grafted a piece of bone from Lennon's hip to the damaged vertebra, securing it with wires. There was a risk he might not walk properly again.

“The skin of my lower back was being held together by 16 metal staples and there was still a trickle of blood oozing from the scar which was about a foot long and followed the line of my lower spine. I wondered how I was ever going to play football again.”

Remarkably, he did — after more than a year of rehabilitation. He spent hours each day in the gym, going through his repetitions. Incrementally, his strength returned.

“It was frustrating and hard. I was at the bottom end of the football spectrum on £120 a week and I was out for a year. I just had to tell myself I'd get through this.”

His return to action on Crewe's modest pitch was an emotional, defining moment.

“People see you playing for Celtic and talk about the money you've earned, but they don't see what you've been through to get there,” he said.

Did the self-discipline that helped him recover also contribute to his depression? The disease can afflict high achievers who are particularly hard on themselves.

Surviving mental illness, major surgery and professional humiliation has gifted him a certain resilience. The flimsiest of partitions separate triumph from dejection.

Celtic came close to taking the Uefa Cup in 2003, only to see it snatched away. They lost the league title at Motherwell in 2005: “The lowest point in my Celtic career,” says Lennon. But it's the triumphs that ring in his head: whitewashing Rangers in the 2003/'04 season and collecting the double as captain.

“The team Martin put together was of a kind that only comes along every 20 or 30 years. Every one was a winner who refused to be beaten in any circumstances.”

When Tony Mowbray's troubled tenure of the club came to an end in March 2010, Lennon was a natural choice to take over as interim manager, but two weeks later the club hit a new nadir, losing the Scottish Cup semi-final 2-0 to minnows Ross County. Nobody felt the pain more acutely than Lennon, who described himself as “beyond anger”, but he responded to the setback in typical style, winning the last eight league games of the season, including a 2-1 Old Firm victory.

Today, Lennon’s Celtic are top of the SPL and still very much in the Scottish cup.

To follow captaining a double winning team with managing one would grant him legendary status.

Belfast Telegraph


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